Idea Store - Will Crooks, politician

Will Crooks, politician

        William [Will] Crooks 1852 – 1921,  

        Image of Will Crooks

Will Crooks was born at 2 Shirbutt Street, a one-roomed house at Poplar in between Poplar High Street and East India Dock Road. 

  Ordnance Survey map showing Shirbutt Street, c1870

He and his 6 siblings spent their early years in extreme poverty after their father lost an arm in an accident at work. 

 The Crooks family, Will is second from the right

His mother struggled to support the family by working as a seamstress, and for a period William was admitted to the Poplar workhouse and separated from his parents and siblings. Although this experience was only temporary, it made a deep and lasting impression. 


  Poplar Workhouse, Poplar High Street, c1904

After leaving school Crooks found work as a casual labourer in the docks - where he experienced the daily struggle to obtain work - before becoming apprenticed to a cooper. In 1871 he married Matilda South, a shipwright’s daughter, at St Thomas’ Church in Bethnal Green. Of the couple’s 10 children only 6 were to survive.

  The church of St Thomas, Bethnal Green, prior to demolition in 1954

About this time William began to hold his regular Sunday morning meetings outside East India Dock Gates, which came to be known as Crooks’ College.

  Will Crooks addressing his weekly meeting outside the docks, East India Dock Road

This was the venue for the discussion of a number of social and political issues, and from these meetings would come successful campaigns for free public libraries (which led to the foundation of Poplar library and for a number of tunnels under the Thames below Tower Bridge (the first of which was the Blackwall tunnel).

  Poplar Library, Poplar High Street, c1920. The library was opened in 1894 for which Crooks was one of the chief campaigners. The building now forms part of Tower Hamlets College

  The Opening of Blackwell Tunnel, 1897

Will Crooks was also one of the leaders of the historic 1889 Dock Strike, in which dockworkers successfully demonstrated for wages of 6d. per hour.

 The striking dockers in East India Dock Road Poplar, 1889

About this time he became involved in the mainstream political establishment with his election to the Poplar Board of Trustees. Shortly after this he was elected as one of the two Poplar representatives to the London County Council. It was also unfortunately at this time that his wife Matilda died and William remarried in 1893 to Elizabeth Lake, who would prove to be a staunch support to her husband throughout his political career.

 Mr and Mrs Crooks

The couple moved to Gough Street, Poplar, where they remained until William’s death.

  Crook's house in Gough Street, c1904

As a member of the London County Council on which he served until 1910, he campaigned for fair wages, open spaces (Bromley Recreation Ground, Island Gardens and Tunnel Gardens all resulted from his efforts), technical education, and the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel. 

  The Labour leaders of the London County Council. Crooks is fourth from the right.

  Tunnel Gardens, Poplar, 1956. Opened in 1902 and closed in 1958 when work began on the second Blackwall tunnel

He was elected to the newly formed Poplar Borough Council in 1900 and became mayor (the first Labour mayor in London) in 1901. 

Crooks was also an elected member of the Poplar Board of Guardians and along with George Lansbury dominated the proceedings. Their radical measures, which used the poor law to reform the workhouse system and defend working-class living standards, marked the beginnings of what became to be known as “Poplarism” in the deprived East End. The resulting conflict with the municipal alliance of local ratepayers led to an official enquiry by the Local Government Board in 1906. 

 'High life in Poplar Workhouse' cartoon. Crooks is portrayed standing on the left with Lansbury seated to the right of him

In 1903 Crooks was elected to Parliament when, as the Labour Representation Committee candidate, he won a sensational by-election at Woolwich, a Tory constituency.

 Will Crooks campaigning at the Woolwich by-election in 1903

Crooks was a hard working constituency MP, interested in poor-law schooling, old-age pensions and Woolwich arsenal issues. 

 Early leaders of the Labour Party in 1906. Crooks' is in the centre, hatted

Extreme ill health ended Crook’s parliamentary career in February 1921 when he resigned his seat. He died in Poplar Hospital on 5th June 1921 and after an impressive funeral service at All Saints’ Church, was buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 

 Crooks' funeral procession passing St Stephen's Church, East India Dock Road

 Crooks' grave at Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 1921

An entry for  William Crooks can be found in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

 Will Crooks MP